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Reversing himself on a fundamental issue in employment discrimination law, Senior U.S. District Judge Clifford Scott Green has ruled that a plaintiff’s claim that he “was a qualified individual with a disability” is enough to survive a motion to dismiss under the Americans with Disabilities Act. Green, of the Eastern District of Pennsylvania, had previously dismissed Angel M. Cruz’s ADA claim against Northwest Airlines after finding that his “conclusory” pleading fell short of the requirements announced by the U.S. Supreme Court in 1999 in Sutton v. United Airlines. Now Green has ruled in Cruz v. Northwest Airlines that more recent guidance from the high court shows that plaintiffs need not include details about their disabilities in their lawsuits to survive a motion to dismiss. In the 2002 decision in Swierkiewicz v. Sorema, the justices underscored that under Federal Rule of Civil Procedure 8(a)(2), a complaint need only offer “a short and plain statement of the claim showing that the pleader is entitled to relief.” As a result, Green concluded that his prior ruling read too much into Sutton. “When viewed in light of Swierkiewicz, the [conclusory] statement now appears to be adequate,” Green wrote. In the suit, Cruz claims he was offered a job as a flight attendant with Northwest Airlines on the condition that he satisfactorily complete a physical examination. During this examination, Cruz said, he informed Northwest that he had diabetes and that he was later told that the job offer had been withdrawn. Attorneys Mark S. Scheffer and Gerald Jay Pomerantz of Pomerantz & Scheffer filed the suit alleging that Northwest’s refusal to hire Cruz violated the ADA. Northwest’s lawyers — Thomas G. Servodidio of Philadelphia-based Duane Morris and David E. Nagle and Joan C. McKenna of LeClair Ryan in Richmond, Va. — moved to dismiss the suit, arguing that Cruz had neither alleged that he was substantially limited in a major life activity nor that Northwest regarded him as being substantially limited. In March 2002, Green cited Sutton when he dismissed Cruz’s lawsuit without prejudice. In Sutton, the justices held that to survive a motion to dismiss, the complaint must state not only the condition upon which the discrimination is alleged, but also a major life activity which is substantially limited. The Sutton Court also advised that a plaintiff should also state what effect, if any, any mitigating measures such as medication have on his condition. But when Cruz’s lawyers filed an amended complaint, the defense lawyers renewed their motion to dismiss, arguing that Cruz had still failed to allege either that he was substantially limited in a major life activity or that he was regarded as disabled. Now Green has ruled that the law has been clarified and that Cruz’s bare-bones pleading must go forward. “Because the ADA defines disability as being substantially limited in a major life activity, a reasonable interpretation of plaintiff’s barebones averment that he has a disability is that plaintiff is also alleging that he is substantially limited in a major life activity,” Green wrote. In his eight-page opinion, Green found that the Supreme Court’s decision at the end of last term in Swierkiewicz rejected the argument that employment discrimination lawsuits must contain specific facts establishing a prima facie case of discrimination under the framework set forth in McDonnell Douglas Corp. v. Green. Instead, the justices quoted the language of Rule 8(a)(2) and held that an employment discrimination complaint “need not include such facts and instead must contain only ‘a short and plain statement of the claim showing that the pleader is entitled to relief.’” Green found that the justices had underscored that plaintiffs in employment discrimination suits are entitled to pursue claims under a “notice pleading” standard which “relies on liberal discovery rules and summary judgment motions to … dispose of unmeritorious claims.” Applying that standard to Cruz’s suit, Green found that Cruz satisfied the requirements of Rule 8(a)(2). “Plaintiff has alleged that he was denied employment based on his disability in violation of the ADA. Plaintiff has also described the events surrounding the alleged violation and provided the relevant dates,” Green wrote. “Defendant has thus been given fair notice of plaintiff’s claim as well as its basis … . If defendant feels the need for greater specificity or clarity then they may conduct discovery until they are satisfied that all the relevant facts have been brought to light,” Green wrote. Similarly, Green found that Cruz had a valid claim that he was “regarded as” disabled. “Under the ADA, employers are permitted to rely on hiring criteria which prefer some physical characteristics, mental conditions, and limiting impairments over others, but they are prohibited from making hiring decisions ‘based on a physical or mental impairment, real or imagined, that is regarded as substantially limiting a major life activity,’” Green wrote. In the suit, Green noted, Cruz claims that Northwest “perceived plaintiff as being substantially limited in one or more major life activities, such as, by way of example and not limitation, eating and traveling.” The suit also alleges that Northwest “made erroneous stereotypical assumptions about plaintiff on the basis of his diabetes, namely that plaintiff was substantially limited in one or more major life activities, such as … eating and traveling.” On the basis of those allegations, Green found that Cruz had pleaded a valid claim of discrimination under the “regarded as” prong of the ADA.

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